Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Libraries and Class Identity in Scotland, 1800-1842: A PhD

I’m back – and this time for the long haul!

Books and Borrowing is a project that I’ve greatly enjoyed being involved with since receiving a Carnegie Vacation Scholarship in summer 2020, which enabled me to conduct three months of research with the project team (you can read about this research here, here, and here). My undergraduate dissertation used the data to demonstrate how our understanding of authorial reputation can be improved by an analysis of library borrowing records, using Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen as case studies. Since completing my undergraduate studies in 2022, I’ve worked periodically with the project to normalise the records from John Gray Library in Haddington and to create an exhibition and social media kit which will be sent to all of the project’s partner libraries at the end of the project.

It’s a delight, therefore, to officially be back on the project team today as I begin a MSc in Historical Research and then, next year, a PhD using Books and Borrowing’s database alongside library archive and contemporary nineteenth-century materials. I’m especially grateful to the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS) and the Economics and Social Research Council for funding this research, as well as my supervisors, Katie Halsey, Ali Cathcart, and Dave Griffiths, for their invaluable assistance during the application process.

My project will be the first to conduct both extensive and in-depth research on an intrinsic strand of the Books and Borrowing project – the borrowers! The project team’s endeavours have ensured that almost 150,000 borrowing acts have been entered into the database, providing the largest dataset so far regarding how various societal groups accessed libraries. The project has already demonstrated that individuals from a range of social backgrounds frequented libraries (you can read some examples of occupations represented in borrowing records on the project’s home page) but the project team has not yet had the time to identify all these individuals, or to carry out substantial analysis by socio-economic status, although they have shown via small pilot studies, such as Kit’s work on the Advocates Library, and Alex and Kit’s work on the Chambers Circulating Library, that this is possible. Identifying and then analysing many more borrowers forms the basis of my research.

“Rules for the Management of the Library,” in Institution, Rules, & Catalogue of the Orkney Library (1816) (p. 10); an example of the archive materials I will analyse to understand the economic management of libraries.

My research project aims to uncover the significance of libraries in establishing and/or disrupting senses of class identity in an increasingly industrialised society. To do this, firstly, I will examine library archive materials to determine the socio-economic conditions that influenced how libraries were managed. After this, I’ll trace select individuals represented in the borrowing records from eight partner libraries, from which I’ll create a dataset which I will use to conduct an analysis of the interrelationship between libraries and class identity in Scotland between 1800 and 1842.

My research will focus on Chambers’ Circulating Library, John Gray Library, the Leighton Library, the Library of Innerpeffray, Orkney Library, Selkirk Subscription Library, Westerkirk Parish Library, and Wigtown Subscription Library. These have been chosen to represent, first, a wide geographic range, facilitating a comparison of library use between the far North and far South of Scotland, as well as between urban and rural areas, and, secondly, to represent a wide demographic range, with members of the labouring classes as well as the gentry and professional classes represented in their borrowing records.

In his vital work, Libraries and their Users, Paul Kaufman described it as a “challenge to … find the motives behind the founding, the social conditions controlling growth and, above all, the records of actual use”[1] of libraries. Despite an increase in the use of library archival materials for innovative research in recent years, such sources have not yet been examined for Kaufman’s original purpose: to systematically study the social contexts tied to library management and access. It’s wonderful that the Books and Borrowing data will facilitate this study and I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position to conduct such valuable work.

Paul Kaufman, Libraries and Their Users

To begin with I will carry out a qualitative analysis of library archive materials including catalogues, minute books, inventories, receipt books, accession and deaccession lists, and rules and regulations to establish the ways in which technological change and economic management impacted the decisions made about the libraries’ operations and book stock.

I will then extract data from Books and Borrowing’s database relating to all borrowers named in the transcribed registers for the libraries involved in my study. I will trace fifty central borrowers from each library using contemporary materials such as census records, voters’ rolls, wills, inventories, taxation records, and post office directories. Having identified the individuals named, I will categorise them according to socio-economic status, occupation, gender, and location and identify any changes in their socio-economic status by noting occupational progression and conducting a social network analysis.

A breakdown of borrower occupations so far recorded in the records of the eight libraries under study, from the Books and Borrowing Development Site. After tracing borrowers from 1800-1842, I will add my findings to the database.

A breakdown of borrower occupations so far recorded in the records of the eight libraries under study, from the Books and Borrowing Development Site. After tracing borrowers from 1800-1842, I will add my findings to the database.

Using the identified borrowers as case studies, I will carry out a quantitative statistical analysis of the borrowers according to the categories above, revealing, for example, how regularly each group frequented libraries, the distance travelled to the library, how many books were borrowed, and the types of books borrowed. With this data, I will create visualisations such as charts and network graphs that demonstrate patterns and networks of library use among a range of social and geographic demographics in Scotland, which, together, will reveal patterns of library use on a wider national scale.

By analysing the interrelationship between borrowers’ social-economic backgrounds, their patterns of library use, and the libraries’ organisational structures, I plan to assess how economic factors drove access to literature, and whether this access had implications for the socio-economic identity of borrowers.

I’m particularly excited that this research affords opportunities to work closely with partner libraries as I’ll make extensive use of their archives and plan events to be hosted in the libraries. Keep an eye on this blog for news of these events and for some preliminary research findings.

But for now – bring on the Masters!

[1] Paul Kaufman, Libraries and their Users (London: The Library Association, 1969), p. 11.